Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied Monday that the U.S. was responsible for hacking Venezuela’s energy grid, asserting that the debilitating power outages now gripping the South American nation are the result of “years and years of neglect” by Venezuelan authorities.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Mr. Pompeo denied the Trump administration was engaged in a covert and overt subversion campaign to oust socialist Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro from power and take control of its vast oil reserves.
To the contrary, the secretary of state said, it is a small number of nations that support Mr. Maduro who are guilty of “carrying out the very foreign interventionism of which they accuse others.” He specifically called out Cuba and Russia, two longtime allies and economic partners of the leftist government in Caracas.
Mr. Pompeo spoke shortly after the White House imposed new economic sanctions on Venezuela to target a Russian bank U.S. officials accused of providing “illicit” financing to the Maduro government.
The Trump administration, which last month joined other governments in Latin America and Europe in declaring Mr. Maduro’s presidency illegitimate, is holding out hope that Venezuelan military leaders may soon shift their allegiance to opposition leader Juan Guaido.
The political stalemate and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has worsened in recent days after a wave of electricity and communications outages around the country, which took hold as the opposition and Maduro loyalists held rival demonstrations in Caracas and other cities. Both sides have blamed the others for the power outages, and the Maduro government has suggested the U.S. covertly attacked the power grid.
When asked directly Monday evening whether the U.S. has had any role in the outages, Mr. Pompeo responded: “The system has had problems for a very long time.”
A lack of maintenance by the Maduro government “was the cause of the blackouts that have taken place,” the secretary of state said.
U.S. officials say the blackouts, which have been blamed for numerous deaths at Venezuelan hospitals, will increase the pressure on Mr. Maduro to step down. National Security Adviser John R. Bolton said Sunday that “momentum is Guaido’s side” to overtake Mr. Maduro, claiming key military commanders once loyal to Mr. Maduro already have “shifted” their allegiance.
Mr. Bolton said that the opposition leader is closer to garnering support from “enlisted personnel in the military and the junior officers [and] the top officer corps” than is being reported by news organizations.
National security sources, meanwhile, warn that the situation in Venezuela risks entering into a grinding political standoff, with the U.S. and its allies backing Mr. Guaido and Russia, Cuba and China giving support to the regime.
The U.S. Treasury Department said Monday that Evrofinance Mosnarbank, a Moscow-based financial institution jointly owned by Venezuela and the Russian government, would be sanctioned for circumventing international economic sanctions and delivering money to Mr. Maduro.
The bank, Treasury officials said, has supplied funds to the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA, and the money is then funneled to the Maduro regime.
“As Maduro’s isolation grows, so do his desperate attempts to expand his corrupt network,” the Treasury Department said in a statement. “Maduro’s enablers, including those in Russia, are facilitating the continued theft of Venezuela’s assets, allowing members of the illegitimate Maduro regime to line their pockets at the expense of the Venezuelan people.”
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.
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